The story of Portugal’s finest porcelain is one of relentless focus on skill and imaginative design – along with a workers’ utopia to rival New Lanark.
words | Natasha Radmehr
I’ve told everyone I’m jetting off to Portugal to visit the factory of the country’s oldest porcelain brand, Vista Alegre. But when I arrive at the sprawling estate in Ílhavo, I realise I’ve been somewhat underselling it.
Standing in the cobbled plaza in the shadow of a magnificent 17th-century chapel, I can see a museum and, further along, a theatre. A stroll through tree-lined streets takes me past a former nursery and an ivy-clad mansion. There’s a factory, yes, as well as a warren of whitewashed workers’ houses punctuated by mustard-framed doorways and flower boxes spilling over with geraniums. Sixty of the factory’s former and current employees still live in the neighbourhood; some of the homes will, in time, become additional accommodation for the on-site hotel, overlooking the River Boco. All of it is part of Vista Alegre.
LIFE WORK BALANCE
I wouldn’t normally think of New Lanark while baking in 28°C heat beneath a cloudless sky, but the parallels are undeniable. Like Robert Owen before him, José Ferreira Pinto Basto was driven as much by a social conscience as he was by entrepreneurship when he founded Vista Alegre in 1824. Long before wellbeing was a buzzword and tech bros plied employees with foosball tables and pinball machines, he created a factory village where his workers could thrive, sustained by fair wages and comfortable accommodation as well as cultural pursuits.
IN THE CRAFT
Pinto Basto’s utopian socialist vision was, at the time, ground- breaking. So too was his foray into porcelain production. In the early 1800s, Portugal had no known source of kaolin (a white clay essential to the manufacture of porcelain), nor a workforce that would know what to do with it. Vista Alegre focused on making soapstone pottery and crystal glass until the discovery of a vast kaolin deposit in the 1850s allowed a pivot to fine porcelain. Knowledge gleaned from trips to France informed the techniques used to achieve the superior milky, translucent quality so admired by collectors around the world.
The pieces are fired, glazed, then placed back in the kiln a second time at a higher temperature to become a true hard- paste, glossy porcelain. Every piece of white china is scrutinised and hand-selected before being decorated, if required, by image transfer or hand-painting. A special object such as the sculpture described by Quatorze will go to the factory’s dedicated painting area – an airy, peaceful room far from the noise and bustle of the factory floor – where a skilled artisan will bring it to life with ceramic pigments. “The decoration of a small bird can take up to three days, consisting of eight hours of work and 20 hours of firing in the decoration (or muffle) kilns,” adds Quatorze.